Racing: Dreaming of a grey Christmas

Elsworth back on his old stamping ground; Sue Montgomery finds one half of a great double act is still eager for action
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The Independent Online
David Elsworth and Desert Orchid were once as much a part of Christmas as cranberries and crackers. And if the trainer returns to Kempton Park on Boxing Day he will undoubtedly look at his old warrior with affection and gratitude for the glory days, but his mind will be firmly focused on the future, not the past.

Both man and horse are whiter of coat these days, but though the equine hero of four King George VI Chases can take it easy as he leads Thursday's big-race parade, Elsworth is still in business. And for him, the wheel has turned full circle.

On his sideboard the King George trophies jostle for position with those for the Gold Cup, Grand National, Queen Mother Champion Chase and Triumph Hurdle, not to mention some glittering Flat prizes. But the years AD - after Dessie - have not been a particularly easy ride for the man who masterminded his and other careers with such skill.

After the grey's retirement was announced five years ago this week, Elsworth had some 130 horses to comfort him, including the Derby winter favourite Seattle Rhyme. But his spirits appeared to flag after a change in circumstances meant a switch from his long-standing base at Whitsbury in Wiltshire to a state-of-the-art training complex at Whitcombe in deepest Dorset.

The new address and position as a salaried trainer, though bringing some financial stability, was not accompanied by any progress professionally. But two weeks ago Elsworth, 57, moved back to his old stamping ground with the ease of one donning a well-worn, familiar glove. He said: I'd lived here longer than anywhere else in my life. I was born in the infirmary near Salisbury Cathedral, and you can see the spire from the top of the gallops.

"I don't regret the move away, because all experience in life is good, but my appetite for the business diminished a bit. I'd never stopped trying to improve the quality of the horses, but I had thought that my track record might have meant I'd keep getting a new intake each year. But I discovered that no matter who you are you've still got to keep working at it.

"The horses and winners were fewer and I'd reached a crossroads. I was the wrong side of 50, and beginning to feel a bit left out. I was wondering whether I should retire. And then fate decreed that the opportunity presented itself for me to come back here."

Elsworth, his own man again, aims to have all 50-odd of his boxes at Whitsbury filled by the spring ("though we'll always find room for a good horse") as his Flat runners and new recruits, including some choicely bred, expensive yearlings, arrive. Dessie may have been the flag-bearer, and his long-lasting old stagers are a credit to him, but it should not be forgotten that Elsworth, one of the leading exponents of the dual-purpose art, trained the high-class filly In The Groove to two Group 1 victories.

He said: "At the moment it's not that we're not competing, but we're being selective about our targets and keeping our powder dry for a strong late winter and spring." One of the oldsters due to reappear soon is Roll A Dollar, not sighted for more than a year. The 10-year-old is being targeted at the Tote Gold Trophy in February, and his trainer said: "The car's been in the garage a long time, but he was once a very good horse . . . those nearest to him feel that there's a very good chance that his fire could be rekindled."

The likeable Elsworth, sometimes outspoken, often on edge but unfailingly helpful, bears no grudges about water under bridges. "They say you should never go back, but I had the happiest times of my life here, and I feel I've never been away," he said. "When I first arrived I had huge doubts and anxieties about whether I could make a go of such a high-profile place, but this time around we've got stronger horses and better chances. And I've got more experience, and first-class people around me."

Elsworth was loath to single out any one of his staff, but named his assistant Paul Holley as a particular rock. "He's one of the unsung heroes: he'll muck out and ride in the dark, go off and drive 200 miles to ride in the first, and, if he can, gets back for evening stables. There's no other jockey that does anything like that and he rides bloody well into the bargain."

All Elsworth's old enthusiasm is back. "The pictures are back up, I'm getting used to the loo seat again, and I've got all my trophies around me. But I know they're not going to get me any more winners. I'm the only one that can do that, and I'm fortunate that I've been given a second chance to do it.

"Horses like Muse and Oh So Risky have been with me for years, and like me, they've come home. I swear they go to work with a smile on their faces. I know I do."